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Waiting for the final curtain... under stage lights in the shadow of coronavirus

Waiting for the final curtain... under stage lights in the shadow of coronavirus

Student performer, former president of Fletcher Players and two time panto dame, Tom Nunan, reflects on the experience of being part of a show that was cut short due to the current pandemic.

As any ADC regular knows, the safety curtain is a fickle beast. Infamous and iconic in equal measure, it can rise at any time, bringing an abrupt end (or at least pause) to the evening’s proceedings. The cast have to keep tapping away; their show-must-go-on grins distracting the audience while nervous eyes flick to the bouncing floor. Meanwhile, the crew scatter backstage, down to the workshop, the organised chaos of cans communication keeping the show on the road as long as possible. The audience may of course notice this nervous energy – it probably adds to the enjoyment, let’s be honest.

In short, you must savour your time on the ADC stage, because you never know when it may be cut unceremoniously short.

In March, the sentiment hung over the run of Guys and Dolls. This year’s Lent Term Musical, due for a two-week run, was already loaded with a sense of great importance – for a large number of the cast, crew, production team and band alike, it was our final ADC outing. This feeling made even more pressing the fact we did not know quite when the final curtain would fall (or in our case, rise…). This looming realisation was not caused by the safety curtain, however. It was a more global concern than that.

A week is a long time in Cambridge, never more so than during show week. This was particularly true of Guys and Dolls. The show opened on Wednesday 11th March, and in the days beforehand it was business as usual. A term-long rehearsal process with the usual busy schedule, cast-bonding and last-minute panics culminated in the get-in weekend. The (incredibly impressive) set was constructed, fire-escapes, rotating signs and all. Monday and Tuesday both ended at 1am (and that was just for cast, so spare a thought for the sleepless crew). Early starts followed. Grandma Groove was attended as usual. So far, so normal.

Indeed, it was only by opening night that the term coronavirus became a regular topic of conversation around Cambridge. Even then, it was a concern for the near future; we’d do the show’s full run, finish term, get home and the worst would hit in April or mid-May when we were back in Easter Term. “Maybe exams will be cancelled?” was an optimistic but not implausible hope. However, for us in the theatre (notwithstanding the occasional dressing room chat in a moment of respite) the virus was not at the forefront of our minds. The show was (and quite right too).

But, day by day, the situation changed. By the Thursday performance, less than 24 hours later, the coronavirus was casting a looming shadow. It dominated the news, it dominated our conversation. It was 50/50 whether we’d make it to the last weekend of our run, which was just 10 days away. Family and friends were booking earlier performances. It was clearly changing our habits. And it would clearly impact the show.

By Friday (the 13th, if you’re into that sort of thing), the seriousness of the situation was clear. 50/50 was a thing of the past.

This Friday 13th afternoon, our call time was brought forward. We were called to a full group conversation organised at fairly late notice. Such an event is normally saved for a serious telling-off caused by a (potentially juicy) indiscretion. Sadly, we knew that this chat would be a lot less juicy and a lot more serious. After just two shows, the silent majority among us concluded our run was at an abrupt end.

However, seated in ADC auditorium, we were told by our producer Lucia and Luke from ADC Management that we were not done. Yet. The curtain could fall at any point. It could be our decision. It could be forced upon us. We didn’t know how, and more importantly we didn’t know when.

It’s fair to say that this thought, which none of us had ever quite encountered in any other show we’d done, was a shock to the system. Add it to the fact that the end of this show would also mean returning home and the start of, well, whatever came next, and this chat became a turning point. ‘Enjoy each show like it’s your last’ was no longer a motivational adage, but advice we should literally. So we did.

After that chat, our routine pre-show preparations felt a lot less routine. Ella, our wonderful choreographer who was set to leave for New Zealand, led a jumbo warm-up, the grand finale in a term full of disco-fuelled warm-ups. The energising games just before the show turned into dressing room team talks. A trio of 5* reviews helped, of course. And not to float our own crapgame, but that evening we pulled out a blinder of a show. The game was afoot, and that evening, we won. The day had been a fork in the road, and as a cast and crew we’d committed down a certain path together.

Theatre’s a team sport, and from that night on we relied on each other to get us through.

Saturdays bring the incomparable experience of a two-show day. It always obliterates your diary and puts everything, sleep included, on hold. This time though, we weren’t complaining. By this point, the Cambridge exodus had begun. People were leaving for home, fearing being locked down there and then. It was unclear who’d still be there to watch the show. Getting into the theatre was a welcome escape. The ADC had become a little haven of activity away from a world quickly slowing down.

We were not impervious to the exodus. For two key members of the team, one cast and one crew, Saturday’s shows would be their last. They had to return home, and so Saturday would be our last performances with the whole team together. Theatre tends to be emotionally charged (we can be a bit self-indulgent, can’t we?); for us, this was the battery.

This didn’t change our day, but amplified it. Instead of a dance warm-up with pumping dance tracks, we made do by singing ABBA classics. A cappella. Whilst jogging on the spot. Not only was our 22-strong cast crammed onstage, but our crew took it upon themselves to clamber onto the set and do the warm-up too (in full voice, naturally). I’m fond of this moment, because our ABBA warm up was such a time-and-place thing. An absurd moment that couldn’t be replicated outside this unlikely combination of circumstances. It is the most vivid image I have of all of us getting each other through an increasingly difficult week.

Theatre traditions are important, none more so than that of the matinee gag; theatre fanatics and panto purists will be pleased to know for this matinee we took a loose interpretation to pedestrian concerns like agreed blocking, appropriate props and the script. The evening quickly followed on, and after a cursory warning from the director (another mat gag tradition), we pulled together a slick version of the show we’d actually rehearsed.

The first Saturday show of a two-week run is always followed by the mid-out. A spring-clean version of a get-out (where the set is entirely deconstructed), the mid-out is a curious experience at the best of times. Add global pandemic as a backdrop, and let the mania begin. Forget miracle Malaria drugs: I’d vouch for Madagascar impressions, stage-painting races and ADC cocktails as the cure to your coronavirus blues. So, we sent off our two departees in the only way Cambridge thesps know how – an afterparty that goes way too late.


To be continued next week...

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